Interviews are often considered to be the most intimidating and mysterious elements of the Oxbridge admissions process. This summary is designed to demystify the process so that you can approach your interview as confidently as possible.
What Role Do the Interviews Play?
Interviews are only one piece in the jigsaw of Oxbridge admissions. They are important, but only as part of an overall picture. The other pieces of information colleges use include:
- The information contained in your UCAS form;
- Submitted work;
- Subject/Aptitude test scores.
How Important Are Interviews?
Interviews form the keystone of the admissions process. They allow colleges to assess applicant’s suitability, centring the following points:
- Do they understand what the course is; and do they really want to do this specific course?
- Do they have the intellectual potential to do the course?
- Do they have the requisite level of knowledge to start the course on a manageable footing?
- Do they have the requisite drive, self-management skills, and diligence to complete the workload of the course?
- Are they teachable?
Interviews are designed to function as much as possible like tutorials or supervisions. For this reason, interviews are not tests of knowledge, but enable admissions tutors to assess a candidate’s intellectual capacity and potential.
How Are the Interviews Done?
There are lots of myths about how interviews are carried out. It is important to bear in mind that there are minor differences in practice from subject to subject and college to college, but for the most part the process is quite standardised.
The number of interviews you’ll have will depend on the course and college you have applied to, but candidates will generally have two interviews of approximately 20-45 minutes at their first choice college, or in certain cases a college assigned by internal procedures. Generally speaking, both of these interviews will be subject focused – with one concentrating on the personal statement and candidates’ general subject knowledge and one concentrating on ‘applied’ elements, such as a reading task, problem, or exercise.
Each interview is generally carried out by two interviewers, who will take turns to ask questions and to take notes to help them remember your answers (but don’t be alarmed if one interviewer simply sits there and takes notes”. At the end of an interview, the interviewers generally agree on a mark out of 10. After your two interviews you will have two separate interview scores that can be entered into the admissions system – although you will not be told how you’ve scored!
At Cambridge, this is the end of the story: after two interviews, candidates return home. Colleges then collate their data before undertaking an inter-college process designed to ensure that all candidates deemed worthy of a place at the university are found a place in a college. This involves long discussions between colleges’ admission teams about the specific strengths and weaknesses of candidates’ applications.
At Oxford, the same end is achieved through the practice of ‘second interviews’. After interviews at their first choice college, many candidates are sent on for further interviews at other colleges. Being kept for second interview is not a bad sign at all; and almost every college will interview candidates from other colleges as a matter of course. Generally, ‘second interviews’ combine aspects from both the general and applied interviews, with all four college interviewers present. Candidates may receive third and even possibly fourth interviews depending on the specific circumstances of admissions that year, but with the specific objective that everyone get a fair chance to show their full potential.
What Kinds of Questions are Asked?
While every year the press fills with examples of ‘impossible’ questions asked at Oxbridge interviewers, these generally come without context; in reality such questions tend to come at the end of a long line of questioning, with a logical path leading to an otherwise unexpected point.
In the general subject interview, interviewers are likely to start with a simple enquiry into why the candidate wants to do the degree they have applied for. The rest of the interview tends to be guided by the academic interests outlined in the personal statement, or questions around the candidate’s explorations of the subject beyond their sixth form syllabus.
In the applied interview, a similar procedure is followed in order to see how well a candidate deals with specific tasks relevant to the course – interpreting data; close reading a poem; discussing historical sources.
Are Interviewers Interested in Extra-Curricular Achievements?
The short answer is, No. Unlike U.S. universities, Oxbridge colleges are not interested in sporting achievements, musical awards, charity work, or anything else not associated with the subject they will be teaching you.
How Should Candidates Approach the Interview?
An ideal candidate should do the following:
- Makes sure they understand – and say if they don’t.
- Think – out loud or silently; either is fine. Some silence is fine.
- Respond – making their thinking clear as they go.
- Take on board what the interviewers say – new info, pointers, new ways of looking at the question.
Some common things that people do, to interviewers’ frustration are these:
- Not listening – this proves they’re not teachable.
- ‘Sticking to your guns’ – being able to change your mind thoughtfully is the key to teachability.
- Parroting prepared information – interviewers recognise it and do not want to hear it, at all.
- Repeating themselves – unsuccessful candidates tend to go in circles because they are not listening or thinking things through.
What should I wear?
No one really minds. It is good to be smart but important to be comfortable.
What if I don’t understand the question?
Ask! If you do not know the meaning of a word, or if a whole question is vague to you, ask for some clarification.
What if I don’t know the answer?
This is not a ‘what if’. A good interview will almost always reach the point of you being asked a question you cannot answer. This is where the thinking happens – which is what interviewers want to see.
What makes an answer impressive?
Logic, clarity, careful use of definitions, and close reasoning through to a nuanced response.
How can I tell if it’s going well?Don’t think about it. Interviewers are busy and tired; interviews are a challenge for them too; and sometimes they show it. It is almost impossible to tell from them if you are doing well or not. Just keep your mind in the game and think about the questions.